Saturday, September 27, 2014

Hats Off to: Jessica Lawson (and BOOK GIVEAWAY!)

Let me tell you who Jessica Lawson is, not necessarily in order of importance:

1. Jessica Lawson is my very oldest friend. We grew up in houses that weren’t on the same street but were connected by a little sidewalk alley between our blocks, where in the springtime, Lily of the Valley grew abundantly, dubbed “Lily of the Alley” by my mother. Our moms were friends and we went to the same neighborhood daycare, and were thick as thieves through kindergarten. I have distinct memories of playing with a creepy Miss Piggy puppet in her basement, trick-or-treating each Halloween, and attending her hobo-themed birthday party (apologies to any homeless people. In talking we realized that we both seem to remember this party vividly, yet when trying to justify how fun it was to have plastic cigars as party favors for 6-year-old girls, it loses quite a bit of its charm and acceptable-ness. Apparently the hobo-themed birthday party was a strange phenomenon of the 80's. Through this dialogue I also learned that Jessica is an expert on the subtleties between hobos, tramps, & bums, if you're interested). 

Don't I make a decent hobo? I mean, that hat. 

When we were starting first grade, my family moved across town, placing me in a different school, and we gradually grew apart. I can’t remember the year but sometime before middle school, her family moved to Indiana, distancing us even further. But our friendship fought on! We were penpals for years (another lost phenomenon of the 80's and prior, thanks to the digital age), and we decided to go to the same sleepaway camp the summer before 8th grade. From there, high school and college busied us, and we lost touch.
            Until Facebook. I found Jessica in a kindergarten picture someone had tagged us both in, and contacted her, only to learn that….

2. Jessica Lawson is a children’s book author! Imagine my delight at not only finding my long-lost first best friend EVER, but in also discovering that she writes (and publishes!) children’s books. I was dumbfounded. Ever since finding each other, we have been emailing and catching up, and she has been instrumental in not only giving helpful hints about the publishing industry, but also in my own motivation to write. I couldn't wait to read her debut middle grade novel, The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, when it came out this summer, and am super excited to share it with my students and hopefully set up some sort of author-Skype session. And she has another book on the way—all of this while raising two stepchildren and two small little girls. Not sure how she does it, but she is inspiring. Visit her author website here:, and her blog here: Aspiring authors, Jessica’s blog is filled with very helpful links about the writing craft, querying, agents….you name it!

3. Jessica Lawson is someone who is generous with her time and was kind enough to answer some interview questions for my blog:

Q: How did your writing career begin?
A: The reason I started writing with the intention of one day getting published was because of my children. When I had my first child, I had some extra time at home. I took up writing and queried my first novel back in fall of 2009. I soon realized how much I loved the process (“People in New York City are reading my query letter and pages! Sure, they’re rejecting my stuff, but they’re reading it! How cool is that???”) and became engrossed in learning about writing craft and trying my best to improve. My first publication credit was in Stories for Children, an online kids’ magazine. That was years ago. I got a check for five dollars for my alliterative story “A Pickle for Patty.” I still have that check—I never cashed it because I didn’t want to give it to the bank and lose that precious piece of paper that had the words “stories for children” and my name printed on it. I figured that could be my career right there, so I kept it. (I love that story)

Q:  How many times was your work rejected before you got published? Any good rejection stories?
A: Oh, there were lots of rejections and I’m sure there will be plenty more (going on submission with publishers with new books can make you feel like you’re querying all over again). I received hundreds and hundreds of rejections and it took three years before I got an agent in fall of 2012. I wrote eight novel manuscripts, a few picture books, several articles, and sent a bunch of children’s magazine submissions before I wrote The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher. Then it was 3-4 months before we went on submission and another 8 weeks or so before an offer came in.

No real good rejection stories. Rejections eventually turned into requests, then I got more rejections, then personalized rejections, more requests, R&Rs (revise and resubmit), etc. I think there was one time I got query rejection after nearly a year and I was like, “Well, this one doesn’t hurt a bit since I’m already querying my next novel and working on another one.”  

Q: How did you get the idea for Becky Thatcher?
A: I was dusting my bookshelves one day and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer caught my eye. I started thinking about the characters and how, as a young girl, I wanted to be like Tom and Huck, running around and finding adventures. Becky Thatcher was a character that I didn’t relate to as much, and I found myself wondering if maybe there was a way to play around with the story and let her get into mischief as well. My version of Becky had an older brother, Jon, who she admired above all others and is grieving when the story opens; that character was inspired by my own brother-in-law.

Q: What is your favorite scene or sentence from the book?
A: I like it when Becky Thatcher tells Tom Sawyer that he’s got to spit more if he wants friends. Not something I would tell my own daughter, but it was fun to write 

Q:  What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m waiting to go over the first pass pages of Nooks & Crannies, a middle grade story set in the Lake District of England in 1906. It was pitched as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Clue” and will be published next summer. I’m also working on a manuscript called Waiting for Augusta. It’s about an 11-year-old runaway who travels from Alabama to Georgia in an attempt to make peace with his dead father. It’s scheduled to be published summer of 2016.

Q: What books are on your nightstand right now?
A: Lots. Let me go see. Okay: Christopher Paul Curtis’s Elijah of Buxton, Donna Gephart’s Death By Toilet Paper, Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy, Arnold Lobel’s Fables, Ally Carter’s Heist Society, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion of the World, Hans Brinker, Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist, and ARCs of Stuart Gibbs’ Evil Spy School, Robin Stevens’s Murder is Bad Manners, and Heather Vogel Frederick’s Absolutely Truly. Some are books that I’m reading for the first time, some are ones that I’m re-reading for pleasure or to see how the author worked a certain piece of his/her writing craft/magic, and some are just comfort books that I like to have near me.

Q: What's one piece of advice for aspiring authors?
A: Try not to give up on the road to getting published~ think of it as a quest. A quest is exciting! A quest has challenges! A quest has triumphs to celebrate~ big ones and smaller ones! A quest is both a deeply personal journey and one that requires teamwork along the way! A quest has places where you might give up, but don’t! It’s okay to get disheartened, but please, please, please use the resources you can find, both internally and externally to keep going.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog! I’m so glad that we’ve found each other again after all these years! (Me too!)

4. Finally, Jessica is generously offering a book giveaway of The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher to a randomly selected person! All you have to do is leave a comment below (by midnight central time on Friday, October 10). Trust me, you want to read this book if you love a main character with a strong and funny voice (and really, who doesn't?), if you are a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn fan, or if you enjoy an adventurous, troublemaker, female protagonist. UPDATE: The winner is Kathy! Congratulations! Shoot me an email (use "Contact Nicole" in the left sidebar) and we'll deliver your brand-new book!


Sunday, September 14, 2014

It Takes a Village...of Writers

In the language arts curriculum materials in my 4th grade classroom, one of the units is called “The Writing Community.” It encourages kids to discuss, share, peer edit…you get the idea. I teach it, but never thought much about how it applies to me as a writer. 

Many writers think of themselves as loners. Islands. After all, books are published by individuals, not groups. Right? 


  I used to think like that too. Taking my first official children’s book writing class, I was super worried and dubious about having to share my writing. How were these people going to help me?Wasn’t everyone going to steal my original and amazing ideas? On top of that, how would I handle the harsh criticisms my classmates and teacher were sure to dole out?

            With each classmate offering praise and helpful suggestions for my book, the lightbulb over my head grew brighter. I had my "AHA moment." The writing community is actually amazingly supportive! Fellow writers don't steal your ideas, they encourage you! Writers work together, helping others get published, because they all know just how rough it is. 

If you don't believe me, take the book you're currently reading and flip to the "Acknowledgements" section. Count how many people the author thanks for helping them publish their book...usually the count is pretty high (i.e. more than just their spouse, kids, and pets). 

I am amazed how I'm continually learning this lesson. Most recently, I joined Twitter and discovered a whole tweeting community of writers. Within a month of joining I received awesome feedback on my query letter and first chapter of my middle grade novel--just because people volunteered to help me. 

I am indebted to the writing community and hope that my small contributions make up for the wealth of help & support I've received from others. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

On Rejection

       To borrow from Thomas Edison, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Ok, so I'm still a few thousand away from his mark, but I have found many ways NOT to publish a book. 

       Rejection sucks, let's be honest. But the silver lining is that in most cases, to be rejected at all, you have to have put yourself out there in one way or another. Dumped by a boyfriend? Well, you made yourself vulnerable and gave it a shot. Turned down by your first college pick? At least you applied! Didn't win a writing contest or got yet another rejection letter? Hey, good for you for writing a book and putting it out into the world for others to judge!

       I'll never forget one of my first rejections I received. I'd sent a picture book to a publisher that was accepting open submissions and looking for exactly what I had. I couldn't contain my excitement when I got an immediate email response that they were going to "kick it around for a while." Kick all you want! Months later, I got a very simply stated rejection email: "Sorry, turns out it's not going to work for us after all." Booooo! That night, I happened to attend a writing workshop with my local SCBWI network. As part of my introduction, I told them about the rejection letter earlier that day. 

       They all clapped. 

       I've never felt better about a rejection. They reminded me how awesome it was that not only had I written a book and flung it out into the publishing world, but I had gotten interest. Maybe not a bite, but at least a little nibble. 

       Still, it never hurts to be reminded that even my favorite authors get rejection letters...

       Do you have an awful, funny, or great rejection story? I'd love to hear it! Please post it in a comment below. 

       I, at the very least, will applaud you.